Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Marvin Sewell Interview Part 1

Marvin Sewell might be the greatest guitarist you've never heard of. I first met Sewell at a recording session in 1995. (Sewell, saxophonist Gary Thomas, and I improvised over hip-hop tracks for two days; these sessions were edited into what become Thomas' "Overkill: Murder In The Worst Degree," an album that we promoted in Europe on tours in 1995 and 1996.) I was struck immediately by Sewell's melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic approach. His improvisation sounded more like a saxophone player than a guitarist. His lines were very angular, and very unpredictable. After touring with the Overkill band a few times, we met again in 1999 for my first tour with Cassandra Wilson. In that setting, Sewell played acoustic guitar with alternate tunings and played a lot of bluesy slide guitar. I was impressed with his versatility. Sewell spent over a decade with legendary vocalist Wilson. Most recently, Sewell and I met up again on a tour of the U.K. with drummer Jack DeJohnette. Again, Sewell's unique approach really bowled me over. I found myself wondering why all guitarists didn't approach music like Sewell. (Also, Sewell, is not too shabby as a pianist; in fact, he easily knows more classical repertoire on piano than I do.)We had a small window of time during our detour to Tbilisi(in Georgia, the former Soviet territory), so I was able to grab an interview. This will run in two parts. Enjoy!

GC: Marvin, how did you get started playing music? Describe some of your earliest musical memories, and how did you go from that to wanting to become a musician?

MS: There was a guy by the name of Wallace Beard, he lived across the street from me and played bass. At the time I was heavily into baseball, wanted to be a professional baseball player. I played baseball every day.
GC: How old were you?

MS: Probably about nine, ten to around thirteen or fourteen. I played baseball every day, watched baseball, knew everything about baseball. I used to really enjoy when the games were delayed by rain. In between that, they would show these clips of professional baseball players giving tips. It’s because growing up in an inner city, a lot of times the problem with playing baseball is not that you’re not good, it’s that you haven’t been trained. You don’t know what to do.

GC: And you’re from Chicago. What part?

MS: Primarily the west side, I grew up in what we used to call a 

 rough part of Chicago called the Lawndale Community or K-Town, its nickname. Then we moved near the suburbs to the Austin area, which is right across the street from Old Park, Illinois. So when we moved to the Austin area there was this guy named Wallace Beard who played bass. He was a really cool guy, had all the girls, great bass player. I wanted to be like him, so I’d hang out with him and learn to play bass. But I’m left-handed, so I learned to take a right-handed bass and play upside down. And then I started hearing cats like Ernie Isley, Jimi Hendrix and I started hearing more stuff on guitar, so I switched to guitar. And Wallace used to play with a lot of gospel bands, basement R&B bands, so I used to go to the rehearsals and hang out and watch the guitar players and see what they were doing, and finally decided that I thought because it would give my parents an incentive to get me a cheaper guitar, I decided to switch and play it on the right side. But that didn’t work. (laughs) My uncle had bought my brother a guitar a few years back, he had bought him a Silvertone that you get from Sears and Rollbuck. They’re worth a little bit of money now, it was a guitar that came with the case and within the case there was an amplifier. So I started messing around with that and hanging around the guitar players at these basement bands, and I was just trying to learn chords and pick up what the rhythm guitar was doing. So I started getting into that and one time I found myself trying to be slick. A cousin of mine gave me a Mel Bay book to check out and then one time I found a book that had thousands and thousands of guitar chords. And it was good, and it was almost like that old saying where a dog chasing a car, and once he catches it he doesn’t know what to do with it. I knew all of these chords, I didn’t know - the book didn’t have any applications. And I learned how to do a lot of that. Somehow I got hooked up with a summer job at Malcolm X Community College and they had a big band. And I started getting into that and I really start going into a jazz stretch, but before that I was into the soul, rock, R&B. Then I heard Stanley Clarke’s record “School Days” and that flipped me out.  At first I didn’t understand it, I thought it was crap, I was like “man, what is this stuff”, you know. And then it kept growing on me, I was like “this is killing!” I had never heard anything like that. Then from that I heard a Duke Ellington record on the radio that flipped me out. I think it was Duke Ellington and Walter Blanton. The bassline tripped me out. I said “what is he doing? Is he playing chords on every note?” and that’s how I really started getting interested in jazz. I used to hang out with this guy, his name was Mike Smith. His name is Adonis now, he’s a house music pioneer. We used to hang out, and he hipped me to a lot of the European fusion cats like Allan Holdsworth, Bill Bruford. But in addition to that, his grandmother used to own a record shop in the 60s. So when she had all these records, she had Giant Steps, Wynton Kelly records - she had everything. Paul Chambers records...”Bass on top”, another record with the headlights on it, I forget the name of it. She had all of these records, all the classic stuff. And that’s how I got exposed to jazz, I was like “wow man, who are these people? I’ve never heard of them!” When I first heard Giant Steps, I didn’t know who I was listening to, I just heard all these colors! What is this, and who are these people? I heard never heard of Charlie Parker, or Dexter Gordon. When I started playing with the Malcom X Community College big band, with the summer job and all, I started learning how to apply some of the stuff that I was doing and “oh, and this is how you hook this up, this is what’s going on”. From there I heard about Charlie Parker and Dizzy. I used to see Dizzy on TV with his cheeks puffed out, but I didn’t know the music, so I started learning about that and it just kind of bloomed. Plus Chicago has a deep history of the blues, so in the background that was going on. There was an old man in my neighborhood that we used to tease “ah man, that cat’s playing that loud blues” and stuff like that. He’d kind of comment and say “one of these days, it’s gonna catch you!” And it did! That sound. I would imagine he was probably listening to people like Lightning Hopkins, Muddy Waters, my uncle was heavily into Howlin’ Wolf and BB King, all of that. So that’s how it all starting coming in, and also I just happened to be walking down Michigan Avenue - Chicago has a rich history of music - and I passed by a Symphony Hall, that’s what it used to be called, I think it’s called Symphony Center. And I saw the names Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and I think Wagner and I didn’t know any better, I said Wagner! (pronouncing the W). So I start looking these guys up in the encyclopedia at home, and I checked out Wagner, thinking “what is this ring cycle thing?” and I started getting interested in that. So it just started blooming after a while, and it kind of started coming together.

GC: So you got into classical music totally on your own?


MS: Yeah. Yeah, just out of curiosity. I was just wondering who these people where. I knew Beethoven because there was a commercial band that did a disco version of Beethoven’s 5th...Walter Murphy or whatever?

GC: (sings brief interpretation of Beethoven’s 5th with a disco beat)

MS: (laughs)
I wanted to know who these people were, and I really wanted to know that music out of curiosity.

GC: Now what about your parents? Were your parents into music at all?

MS: Not really. My mother liked a lot of gospel music, very much that’s it. Just gospel music. When I started getting records I used to play jazz records and stuff. My mother liked jazz as long as it was played softly. My father was into country music. I remember one time I was heavily into this UFO show. I forget the name of the show, some show in the 70s. And there was this Elvis Presley special that was on TV and I said “oh I’m going to get my father to watch this.” I walk into the room, my father is lying down, his feet twitching to the beat of Elvis Presley with a big smile on his face. My father sort of liked the Country/Western that HE liked, there was a particular record he used to play, I don’t even know who performed it, but it was kind of a silly song. I never really heard my father into people like Howlin’ Wolf or James Brown. All of that stuff came through my brother. James Brown, War, Traffic, all sorts of psychedelic-type stuff, and later The Crusaders, instrumental music. I used to think Shaft was this long, instrumental thing because you didn’t hear any words for a long time. He was into stuff like that. Earth Wind and Fire, things like that. I got exposed to that style of music through him.

GC: So this is mid-70s now?

MS: Yeah. My father did play early on, but -

GC: He played?

MS: He played trumpet, but he wasn’t playing by the time I was born and growing up. I found this out later.

GC: So now you’re going to community college. Were you going to community college, or just involved in the program?

MS: I was involved with the program back in the 70s, they had this thing 

 called CETA jobs. I don’t know what the acronym means, but Ronald Reagan cut that stuff out quick.

GC: Of course.

MS: (laughs) I was involved with that, so I was still in high school. But I was playing with the Malcolm X Community College big band playing guitar, trying to learn how to read and accompany, so I got a lot of direction from a lot of people. There’s a few...I don’t know if too many people know of these guys...Elmer Brown on trumpet, he used to play in Jaco Pastorious’ band. Vincent Carter used to head the big band.

GC: Did you know Lonnie [Plaxico] back then?

MS: No, but I had heard of Lonnie. It’s kind of a funny thing, because this guy O’Donnis was studying with Lonnie, so the information that he was O’Donnis (Mike Smith) was getting from Lonnie, I’d get from him. He’d say “man, Lonnie told me to transcribe this entire Paul Chambers bass line on this Coltrane record”. I said “oh really? dig that” and stuff. So that’s how I basically knew Lonnie indirectly. One time I saw him drop by Michael’s house to get something or pick up something, but I didn’t know him in Chicago. I met him in New York.

GC: So after high school, what did you do?

MS: After high school, I got accepted into Chicago Musical College at Roosevelt University. I got there as a composition major. Which was cool, but I changed my major after a couple years. I’m glad I held that major for about 2-3 years because it gave me some ideas on improvisation and composing, and it got me access to private piano lessons.

GC: Now had you ever played piano before college?

MS: No. The only experience I had playing piano was this one time playing piano at a friends house, and I just start banging on it, just playing notes and pretending. I think I did it for two hours. I didn’t know what the hell I was playing, just hitting stuff and listening to the sounds.

GC: You had never played piano before?

MS: Never, never played piano before. I started my piano formal lessons in college. I took two years of group piano, and then for the next maybe 3-4 years I studied with Felize Gonz. Basically he kind of read the Riot Act to me, he said “if you’re a composer you should be able to do score reading, be a great sightreader, you should be able to play piano. That’s why you’re here.” We were painstakingly trying to read through those Bach chorales. And he had a particular technique of reading through the chorales and stuff, not just all 4 lines. He would have be read just the tenor or the bass, put it in different combinations. So you’d be able to read horizontally, then you put it together vertically. Because I think the chorales are harder to read if you take a couple of lines at a time. It’s because a lot of times with the chorales if you read the whole thing vertically, you can hear what’s going to happen. He had me play in the beginning, my first year, little Bach preludes, stuff out of small parts of music, this book called “Modern Classics” and stuff. I remember learning a Tchaikovsky piece. Little things like that. The following year he gave me a Chopin polonaise to play. The one in C minor. I can distinctly remember having a look on my face like “damn”, and he looked at me and said “you’re not a beginner anymore”. I had asked him, I said that I wanted to hear pieces that interested me. He’s the person who introduced me to Brahms’ music. He gave me pieces out of Opus 116, The Fantasies. To me that’s a great set of pieces to actually learn how to take a theme and actually develop it. All seven pieces are based upon a particular theme, or some type of downward or upward motion or some type of movement or counterpoint or rhythm. All seven pieces. I don’t think any of his sets of shorter pieces are like that except the Fantasies. So it was a great selection. I think that the first piece I learn was Opus 16 No.6, then No.3 which is more difficult, then No.4. Then later I learned the rest of them. They were great pieces to start with and learn about what’s going on. Then I’d play Scriabin preludes, Mozart, and Beethoven, which I had difficulty playing. Things like that, basic piano repertoire.

GC: What kind of things were you writing as a composition major, and did your development on piano affect your writing?

MS: Yeah. Things that I was writing with composition at the time...we were dealing with a lot of rhythm. I was taking a composition class for commercial writing, television commercials and things like that.
So yeah, we were learning how to hook up music with the time code. And they’d do interesting things...they’d say “you could use any rhythm you want, but only four notes. With these four notes, you have to put something together, create something.” So I learned how to do that. The whole aspect of it was that you had to put limitations on yourself. What can you do with this amount of information? How micro can you get with just this amount, instead of having this whole thing and having too many choices? Or they’d give me a series of notes, tell me to take a particular line, whole steps and half steps or whatever, and put it in retrograde and do all sorts of things with it. Also my piano playing helped me with composition because I was learning the classics, like with Brahms and themes. I was studying music history and learning Debussy too, and learning Stravinsky - well, learning about Stravinsky. What they were doing with melody and with chords. Not so much what they were doing with rhythm as far as history, but in the Classical era what they were doing with rhythm and how it was more rhythmically daring that the Romantic era. I learned about sound, how these two notes on these two instruments sound when they play together. How is it voiced, if you do a particular voicing. I learned about taking two different chords and putting them together and seeing what kind of sound that was, and what kind of colors you could get, how you move from one thing to another. Create some type of harmonic movement as well as a melodic movement. Counterpoint and the use of color, use of space. The use of tension, the use of power, the use of lyricism.

GC: So you changed your major?

MS: I changed my major to music business.

GC: Interesting.

MS: (laughs) Yeah, it was interesting. Because it wasn’t what I thought it was. I thought about it would be about the music business, but it was music/business. I had taken a lot of finance classes, I was in the finance club where they gave us money to invest in the market.

GC: Really! Wow!

MS: Yeah, just a small amount.

GC: A million dollars.

MS: (laughs) So that was a small club, I got into that. I had to take a bunch of music education classes. That was kind of hard. But I myself continued taking piano lessons because that was most interesting to me.

GC: What about guitar? Did you take guitar lessons?

MS: I took guitar lessons outside of where I had attended. It seemed like the guitar department at the University was a bit too dogmatic and didn’t take into consideration that students are different people. It was like they had a program no matter what level you were on, they were always going to start you out with the Sor book. Fernando Sor. I had a teacher outisde of that where I was learning classical guitar technique. He was a very good teacher, his name is Dean Nelson. He was a bass player who learned how to play classical guitar. He taught me a lot about trying to create, not just the notes, but trying to create a sound and different timbre and how to orchestrate on the instrument. Try to really deal with music.

GC: Well yeah, that’s what’s been really striking about hearing you play over the past two weeks is that in some ways its not the typical things that I hear from guitar. It seems like, we were talking about instruments being in a box, but I feel like a lot of times with guitar there’s certain things that guitarists tend to do. They have voicings that are everywhere, everyone’s doing these voicings. Again, it could be on any instrument, but would you agree with that? Are you even conscious of that? It just seems like you have a completely different approach than a lot of the guitar players I’ve been around.

MS: Well...from early on, when I started listening to jazz music...I don’t mean to sound messed up, but the last thing I wanted to sound like was a guitar player. When I heard Joe Henderson, Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, Bud Powell - I said “that’s what I wanted to sound like.” Much love to the guitar greats, I used to listen to a lot of George Benson, he’s one of my favorites. But it was a conscious effort to listen to him up to a certain point, because I didn’t want to sound like him, or any guy. Because I knew a lot of players that sounded just like Benson or Joe Pass or whoever their favorite was, and or me the way Cannonball or Joe Henderson or Don Byas, the way they phrased, I wanted to spit out stuff like that! Or Bud Powell! I wanted to do that. So I started hanging around cats - there was a disadvantage to that because there were mechanics of the guitar that I was learning until later, but I wanted to see what the piano players were doing, or see how horn players phrase and things like that. It was a conscious effort.  A lot of times guitar is almost like a community. It’s this small community world and people have their favorite guitarist, and this group had their favorite, and it’s very (as Sonny Sharrock said) it’s an insular group. You have this tendency where they listen to each other and therefore everyone sounds alike. I’m not trying to say I’m not anything like them, but sometimes I try to avoid that a little bit.

GC: I think it’s interesting too that this band that we’re currently playing with - you’re playing guitar, but you’re not playing in the way guitarist play. And then you have someone like Don Byron taking the clarinet, Eb clarinet, playing things you don’t hear. That’s already something that a little outside the box. And then the way Jack [DeJohnette] plays is atypical of a lot of drummers, but it’s a very musical way. There are times where I don’t consider myself a pianist because I think I have less - you probably took more piano lessons than I did, in terms of classical repertoire. I just try to play what I hear and I’m influenced because I played trumpet, and so on. So there’s this interesting approach, and do you think - maybe this is a leading question - but do you feel that everyone should approach playing music this way, or improvising? Not necessarily to think in terms of their instrument?

MS: I think it’s important for me, I would say. I think it’s important to think more about playing music. I think you should, and being a musician...because somebody can be a great instrumentalist, but maybe not necessarily be a great musician. You know what I mean?

GC: Yeah!

MS: I think, because I come from a thing where to me it’s all about the ensemble. And of course when it’s your time to shine it’s your time to shine, but the best feeling to me is when the ensemble is creating something, instead of what I call the “Concerto concept”, where you have a blank-faced rhythm section accompanying the soloist. To me what makes people really deal with music is when the ensemble makes it happen. When you really have to deal with music instead of like “I’m going to dial this lick in”, because someone might play something that rhythmically is in a different place, or a different chord, or playing in another key. What you have programmed isn’t necessarily going to work and at that point you have to deal with music and not with mechanics or your licks or whatever. You have to start using your ear and start creating. I think it’s more important. I’d rather be a good musician than a great guitarist. My philosophy is sort of the same as what Andre Previn said. To me, if somebody says “man, that Marvin Sewell is a great musician” that means more to me. As one girlfriend told me, she said “just because a person knows how to type fast doesn’t mean that they’re saying anything when it hits the paper.” So that aspect of it is to me more important. I will admit that I do a few things, like solo guitar stuff, which is cool and I want to develop that more, but that’s not where I have fun. To me the social environment of playing music and connecting with people on stage is the greatest feeling to me. When people have this connection...sometimes it’s good to do your solo thing and to be there but when you have a community of people on stage creating something, and when it’s on, there’s no better feeling than that.

GC: I agree with that. That to me is what makes playing with Jack so special, there’s always this sense of communication which is challenging, because you can never go on autopilot because you never know what’s coming around the corner. The way he plays is so interactive, and it’s not so much a beat as it is a conversation. Constant improvisation, and yet everybody has a place. I think that’s what interesting about the way you approach this gig. I can tell that Jack is excited about it because things that you do with comping, he’s reacting, he’s trying to figure out stuff that works. It’s that stimulation that keeps us alive.

MS: Jack is one of the greatest listeners in music. I can’t tell you the depth...I remember I did a recording with him and I played something...and he just...when you hear him with Keith Jarrett or any other group. I’m sorry to sound “Facebooky”, but I feel blessed! God is good!


It’s a great honor to play with somebody on that level, on that level of listening. The conversations that he has...I listen to him talk, and the amount of knowledge that he has. It’s not in a “I know this” type of way, it just flows out of him. Just like the music that comes out of him. He’s constantly aware of things. I remember one time, when I first did a gig with him. I was so damn nervous. I was on stage with Gary Thomas, Lonnie Plaxico, Michael Caine, and Jack! And I was so nervous that I was kind of facing the band instead of the audience, and I remember Jack came to me, this was years ago, and he said in a loving way, as just a suggestion, “if you notice when I’m playing, you notice sometimes I’ll look up when I do my solo. I’m checking the audience, I’m trying to make a connection to them, make a connection to somebody.” Years ago I heard Arthur Rubenstein say the same thing. Making a connection, because it’s not just about us over here playing it. “It’s just a suggestion”, he said, “why don’t you check that out?” It really helped me, the next concert I felt the energy. Even if it’s just one person, or the aggregate energy of the crowd, the flowing energy. It’s that type of stuff that really helped me. I think playing with Jack in that short amount of time I did really helped me accompany singers, playing with Cassandra [Wilson], and playing with other people. I said “man, this cat really hears everything and is really open”. Playing with him has been an invaluable experience.


Monday, December 24, 2012

December in New York

No hookers, no crack dealers. Unfortuntely, it's 4:30, so all of these cabs are "OFF DUTY"...
New York City has changed a lot in the past two decades. It's believed to be safer (although it's still New York in the sense that ANYTHING could happen ANYWHERE. So , sure, ride the subway at 1AM. But don't be a fool, and please TRY not to look like a tourist…), it's a LOT more expensive, and Times Square is not full of hookers and crack dealers. It is still the jazz capital of the world in that there are more jazz clubs than any other city in the world and there are more jazz musicians concentrate within the tri-state area than anywhere else in the universe. It's way harder to make a living as a jazz musician now than it was when I moved to New York in 1995. Still, the energy of the city and the level of great music you can experience on a daily basis makes me miss New York. Wow, I can't believe I just said I MISS New York. I spent ten or so years trying to figure a way to get OUT of New York! Well, it's nice to head back east every now and then.( I don't know why I just said BACK east. What does that mean? For me, the east is the FRONT……)

I began my trip in Portland. My flight from PDX to Newark was at 5:50 AM, and I got home from

my gig at the Camillia Lounge with David Valdez at 12:30, so I decided that sleep was pointless. I flew to Newark, took New Jersey Transit to New York Penn Station, and then took the F train to Park Slope, Brooklyn, where I had booked a "bed and breakfast" for one night. (Actually, it was a room in someone's apartment; people all over the world are making their houses or apartments into a sort of "hotel alternative". If you are interested, check out If you can be flexible in terms of accommodations, you can save a lot of money.) My lodging happened to be a few doors away from an apartment I rented in the late 90's. Park Slope has really changed a lot. Apparently, in the 80's it was a very dangerous neighborhood; now, it's mostly yuppies and millionaires.

I went for a nice run around Prospect Park. I'm still determined to keep up with my diet and exercise. Sometimes, after not sleeping and traveling all day, my first inclination is to collapse in a heap on the bed and watch TV or even just pass out. Instead, I hope that exercise will energize me to get through the rest of day. Most of this trip, I was able to either run or weight train enough to feel good.

Todd Marcus
The next morning, I took the subway back to midtown and hopped on the Bolt Bus to Washington
D.C. I was due for an engagement at Bohemian Caverns, one of my favorite east coast clubs. I was playing with clarinetist and bass clarinetist Todd Marcus. This was a CD release(Marcus' latest is called "Inheritance", on the Hipnotic label), and a reunion of the same band which recorded on the CD; this band included Eric Wheeler on bass and Warren Wolf on drums. I was ecstatic to get a taste of the musical fire of east coast musicians. (I was also able to get a live interview with Warren Wolf, who is an extremely talented multi-instrumentalist. Hopefully I can get that posted on jazztruth very soon.)

I didn't get much sleep that night; I was determined to get to a gym before my next trip, so I got up at 5:50 AM to lift some weights. I got back on the Bolt Bus at Union Station, and made it back to New York City. After having a bite with a former student from Winnipeg who was visiting New York, I
Larry, Jack, and me
went to Port Authority Bus Terminal to catch a bus to upstate New York; I had scheduled a recording with drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Larry Grenadier. The next day we recorded in Castkill, N.Y., at NRS Recording,  the studio of engineer and bassist Scott Petito. It's hard for some people to imagine doing a whole CD of original music in one session with no rehearsal. Well, when you work with professionals, it's possible. The music really came alive; DeJohnette and Grenadier had an instant hook up and everything sort of "played itself." With a little mixing, editing, and mastering, it will be a great album. Hopefully, it will be out some time next year.

The next day I headed back to the City. I had a few days to hang out with some old friends and drink in some of the New York electricity. I also had planned to teach some private lessons in Manhattan. Since now I'm the Jazz Area Coordinator at Portland State University, I'm mostly working with ensembles, teaching lecture classes, or doing administrating. I kind of miss working one-on-one with eager students. I was glad to have the opportunity to get a chance to do that on this trip.

Warren Wolf
The only music I got to hear on this trip was the Christian McBride "Inside Straight" band at the Village Vanguard. This is a real powerhouse unit; McBride on bass, Carl Allen on drums, Steve Wilson on alto saxophone, Peter Martin on piano, and Warren Wolf, this time on vibraphone (which I believe he considers to be his main instrument). Although everyone in this group is an undisputed virtuoso, I was most blown away by Wolf; his solos, while full of playful spontaneity, were so technically impressive that they almost sounded like etudes that a mortal mallet player would have to spend years practicing.

My last event was a gig with my band at a new space called the Shapeshifter Lab; this is a new space
ShapeShifter Lab
 in Brooklyn run by master electric bassist Matthew Garrison. It's a huge room, and it is also an art gallery. I was booked to perform with my "New Songs" project which features Debbie Deane on vocals, Lonnie Plaxico on bass, and Donald Edwards on drums. I think the holiday plus bitter cold affected our turnout; however, the music was slamming and overtime I work this project, I have an increasing belief in it's potential. (I just have to come up with a good band name. If you have any suggestions, I'm all ears.)I think Shapeshifter Lab is going to have a great futures an alternative venue for many different types of bands and presentations. I'm hoping to have a return booking next year at some point.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


I'm still reeling over the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut last week. Gun violence in the United States is something to which we have become disgracefully desensitized. However, when a troubled young man brings military grade weapons and ammunition into an elementary school and senselessly murders 26 people, 20 of whom were young children, it rouses an oftentimes indifferent populace into outrage and collective sorrow.

I admit that a shooting incident close to my home in Portland a few days earlier didn't phase me all that much; we had been about a year before to that Clackamas Mall where a young man opened fire in a Macy's store. The difference between that and the Newtown incident was that, in the latter, I actually knew one of the fallen children; she was Ana Grace Marquez-Greene, the daughter of well respected jazz saxophonist Jimmy Greene. Our family and the Greene family became very close during our two years as colleagues at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada.

Ana was a bright, sweet young girl. My wife and I were always impressed with Ana and her older brother Isaiah, and how smart, polite, and well behaved they were(although they were older, they seemed very different from our rambunctious toddler). Kerry spent a lot more time with Jimmy's wife Nelba Marquez-Greene and their kids; she would sing her made up "kid songs" and Ana and Isaiah had apparently memorized them. It was helpful to have some fellow ex-pats to share the challenges of teaching music, raising kids, and living in a different country.

As my readers already know, I and my family left Winnipeg in 2011 for Portland, Oregon. The Greene family stayed another year; this year, Jimmy Greene got a new job at Western Connecticut State University. We were happy for the Greene family to finally be able to return to their home state; it seemed as though they were on a great new chapter in their lives.

Jimmy and Nelba are indeed more devoted to their family than anyone I can think of. Indeed, Jimmy is the perfect example of the family man. Plus, he's overall one of the nicest people you'll ever meet in your entire life. Incidentally, if you haven't heard his music, he's one of the baddest saxophonists on the planet. It was indeed an honor to be able to share the bandstand with Jimmy on a regular basis for two years.(I don't think I can play the Theolonious Monk composition "Eronel" without thinking about how much bad stuff Jimmy used to play on it every week at the Wednesday Night Hang in Winnipeg.)

When we heard about the shooting in Connecticut, we thought that the Greene family had moved to Danbury, so we figured they wouldn't be anywhere near Newtown. When I saw Nelba's Facebook post regarding Ana, I was shocked. I'm still shocked. It doesn't seem real. I was sad not just because of Ana's needless death, but I of course thought of my son. And I thought about how Jimmy and Nelba, and Isaiah must be feeling. They are devout Christians, and I believe their faith makes them better equipped than many to cope with such a difficult experience. I don't know what I would do if I lost my son that way. I don't know if I could handle it at all.

I was sad, but then I was angry; I was angry because this should not have happened. No one should have these assault weapons in their home. Sadly, the mother of the shooter owned all of these firearms legally, the firearms which her own troubled son used to kill her. She was described as a "gun enthusiast." I don't understand why "gun enthusiasm" is considered a legitimate hobby in this country. Some things are illegal for a reason. Murder is illegal. So is rape. So is robbery. No one who holds up the local bank is every spoken of as a "robbery enthusiast." They are called a "thief."

I'm angry, but I'm also concerned. I think about my son, Liam. If the laws don't change, he might have to be home schooled. And no more shopping at malls, and no more going to movie theaters. I'm partially being facetious, but only partially. Who knows how many gun toting maniacs are waiting for their chance to go out in a blaze of glory? It's really troubling that even after a tragedy like this, there will be those who will insist that we should not take away our right to stockpile AK 47s for, what? Hunting? Spare me.

The ray of hope is that little Ana's death, while tragic, might actually be what turns the tide against the madness of the gun situation. The public outrage is so loud that change might be right around the corner. Senator Mark Warner, a NRA supporter, says that "enough is enough." President Obama has pledged to do whatever he can to change the laws. Many stores which have sold semi automatic weapons have announced that they are no longer selling them.  It's sad that so many have had to die over the past few decades, but maybe we are finally seeing the straw that broke the camel's back.

If you are hanging out on Facebook or reading the news, this has become a national discussion; the tragedy of the deaths of children and teachers, and how to prevent it in the future, is what seemingly everyone is talking about.(Note to anybody who says the teachers need to be armed:that's stupid...)My wife and I were crushed to hear about Ana's death. It's made me think about what's important in life. It's made me question whether I can do more to help the greater good. I may be outspoken,  but what can I actually do to make a difference? Some say music can be a healing force. Sure, but maybe we need to do more. Signing petitions, calling our representatives, and taking it to the streets might be better.

One thing we might want to do is donate to a good cause. There are groups which are essentially the opposite of the NRA:

The Coalition To End Gun Violence

The Brady Campaign

I, and those of you who answered my Facebook poll, agree that the NRA is more detrimental to our safety than Al Queda. Look at how our country changed after 9-11. With gun deaths becoming more common than deaths by car accident, isn't it time we acted?

My New Year's resolution is to do my part to not let Ana Grace Marquez-Greene's death be in vain. She was everything to her family. maybe she'll be a hero for all of us.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Tribute to McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock

Wow, it's been a hectic December! The Fall term is over at PSU, juries are done, and final grades are in. I'm putting away my professorial sweater and changing into my jazz musician costume. Tonight, at the Mission Theater in Portland, I'll be performing with a top notch quintet. We will be presenting a tribute to the great pianists McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock. (If you haven't heard of them, then stop reading this and go back to listening to Wiz Khalifa.) The concert begins at 7:30 PM. The Mission Theater is located at 1624 Northwest Glisan Street. Tickets are $15. I'll be playing piano; the rest of the group is comprised of David Valdez on alto saxophone, Nicole Glover on tenor saxophone, Chris Higgins on bass, and Chris Brown on drums. In my view, these are among the best musicians in Portland and you should not make up excuses to miss this show!

I will admit, it is difficult as a pianist to make a tribute to two of the greatest pianists who have ever lived. The fact that both Tyner and Hancock have been huge influences on my playing makes it more challenging. I've actually spent years trying NOT to sound like either of them, and have been seeking my own voice as a pianist. However, as an educator, I think it's important to find the balance between study and creativity. Therefore, I welcome the challenge of playing the compositions of Tyner and Hancock, and hopefully, I can add my own path with the road map they have given me.

When I first started playing piano, my style was not what you might call pianistic; I played licks in my right hand which I had transcribed from trumpet players like Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, and Clifford Brown. In my left hand, I had a few voicings which I pounded out with rhythms I had learned from listening to drummers like Elvin Jones and Max Roach. When I started listening to McCoy Tyner, I found that his approach fit well with what I was already attempting to do. I sounded so much like Tyner that saxophonist Phil Burlin wrote a tune called "Colligan's Groove" dedicated to my McCoy Tyner imitation! (It's on the first CD that I ever recorded as a sideman; you can even buy it here if you are curious as to what I sounded like in 1993.)

A few of the arrangements we will play tonight come from a CD I recorded for the Chesky label back in 2007. It's called Hancock Island(available here) and it features Buster Williams on bass, Lenny White on drums, and Steve Wilson on alto and soprano saxophone. Chesky is known as an audiophile label; they record everything live to two track with special microphones in specially treated acoustic settings. I think this CD came out well, although it was hardly promoted and most people have never even heard about it. It's one of the few existing documentations of a group which was actually Buster Williams' working band for many years.

I think one of the things you'll find interesting about tonight's performance is the juxtaposition of compositional styles. Tyner and Hancock are in some ways similar, but in some ways they are worlds apart. Both are able to get a lot of mileage out of simple melodic ideas and forms. However, Tyner has a lot more weight and resolution harmonically, whereas Hancock's tunes are lighter on their feet and leave more room for color and mystery (if that makes any sense). Both pianists began their careers as prodigious sidemen with great legends in jazz. Since they are considered contemporaries, I can't help but wonder if they influenced each other. if they were, it's not well documented; however, drummer Billy Hart told me that he mentioned to Hancock how much he loved Hancock's work on the Wayne Shorter album "Speak No Evil". Hancock replied, "Yeah, on that record....I was just trying to sound like McCoy Tyner."

I hope to see you tonight! In the meantime, here is a link to an article about the show in the Oregonian, and below is a link to an interview I did for Oregon Music News. Please come out and support live jazz in Portland!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Vocal Night featuring Jeff Baker at PSU LH 75 Monday December 3rd 7pm

As you might know, I was added to the Jazz faculty of Portland State University in 2011. This fall, we added another new jazz person: Jeff Baker. Mr. Baker is one of the best vocalists on today's jazz scene, and is also an energetic and highly skilled teacher. He's got a great deal of enthusiasm for jazz. We are extremely lucky to have him here in Portland. I scheduled a concert at PSU this Monday night in Lincoln Hall 75 so that we could get to hear Baker and get to know him a little better. I sat down with him to do a short interview, to also get to know about Jeff Baker a little more.

GC: What are some of your earliest memories of music? Are your parents
  musical? When did you know that you wanted a life in music?

JB-Music was one of my very favorite things to do growing up.  My parents weren't really musical, but both my grandmothers were.  And we went to shows, and concerts all the time as a family.  I sang in church choir, took Yamaha piano classes, went to music camps, etc.  But I also really enjoyed playing sports (although I wasn't as good at them) ha!  It wasn't until I was 16 years old, standing on stage at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival as the winner of the Festival Solo Competition that I really realized that music, and more specifically jazz was what I wanted to do in life!  I remember everything about that experience.  Elvin Jones was playing drums in the All Star band, grinning at me the whole time.  I botched the bridge to 'I'm Beginning to see the Light',  and I was using a diamond shaped AKG microphone.  I'll never forget that 5 minutes as long as I live.

  GC: Who are your biggest musical inspirations? Are you influenced by
  instrumentalists as well as vocalists?

JB-Actually, it was a couple years before I even became aware that you could SING jazz.  I'd gotten a hold of this Dizzy Gillespie album I think it was either 'Live at the Vanguard' or 'Birk's Works' from like 1957.  And I listened to it, and thought that music was completely amazing.  I taught myself to sing those lines, kind of transcribing I suppose, but not exactly?  It wasn't till a couple years later I heard vocalist singing that same stuff.  I was so excited!  But even then, I gravitated towards singers like Chet Baker, Who had a much stronger instrumental sensibility to their singing.
  I also had the incredible joy in life to meet, perform with, and know the late Gene Harris.  He was an amazing man, and an incredibly generous musician.  I don't know very many artists that can make people FEEL as good as he could playing the piano.  Ive listened to the Ray Brown Trio records with Gene playing piano as much as any single recording I own!
 In terms of singers, I've always been drawn towards specific characteristics of a singers style, and not necessarily what genre they're performing.  Eva Cassidy, Joni Mitchell, Mark Murphy, Betty Carter, Johnny Hartman, and of course Portland's treasure Ms. Nancy King are my Mt. Rushmore of vocalists.

  GC: How does Boise, Idaho compare to Portland? In terms of the jazz
  scene or anything else?

JB-Portland is an city that's alive in way very few other places I've been can match.  There's a unique energy and sense of community here that I've never seen.  Boise is an amazing place!  I love my hometown, and always will.  as far as the scene in Boise, there were a handful of players as I was growing up, guys who ended up there for one reason or another who set a great example to younger musicians of taking care of the music.  Honoring the craft.  Some are even still around the area, like my friend Saxophonist Brent Jensen.  the guy is a world class musician, who just happens to live in Idaho.  But in Portland, there are SO MANY extremely talented, and uniquely compelling artistic voices.  In the span of a week earlier this fall, without walking more than one mile from my house, I was able to go see and hear YOU (George Colligan) Randy Porter, Tom Wakeling, Nancy King, Steve Christopherson, Jason Palmer, Ezra Weiss, John Nastos, David Valdez, Todd Straight, and on and on and on!  I started on a Saturday, went almost every night, and heard amazing music, after amazing music.  Night after night!  And I don't even have the time to list all the other cats that are SO killing!  My point is, it isn't like this everywhere.  The Darrell Grant's of the world don't live in every town!  Don't perform in every town.  These guys are in Portland.

  GC: What are some of your philosophies as a jazz educator? What do you
  think  are your strengths as an educator? Did you always have an
  interest in teaching?

JB-My main philosophy about teaching really has to do with helping young artists to realize that learning is a forever kind of thing.  It doesn't have an end point.  Doesn't have a moment of 'oh, I'm finished.'  Learning doesn't resolve.  Life doesn't resolve.  Jazz doesn't resolve.  They EVOLVE, move, change, and grow.  So we have to understand exactly what moment were in!  Why it's important.  Why the information, or concept, or lesson I'm dealing with matters.  It's not to pass a test, or get a certain grade.  Its to prevent us from standing still.  From being stagnant.  Learning allows us to stay in the continuum.  To grow and adapt with what's around us.  And jazz is SO important, MUSIC is so important because as we're moving through life, as humans we need  a way to express what were feeling and seeing!  We take in all this stuff, information, knowledge, emotions, etc.  that stuff has to go somewhere!  It has to come out using our perspective, through our creative expression. put it more simply, I know that by teaching someone how to do something new, or about something new, I've given them a new way to express their own perspective.  I've given them another tool, another color in their palette.

  GC: What are your biggest accomplishments as an educator? As a performer?

JB-I've been extremely blessed to work with and mentor some incredible young artists.  Many of them are all over the country, working on their craft, and expanding their skill set.  I'm always so proud when their new professors and teachers contact me to tell me how incredible my students are, and how they are uniquely dedicated and devoted to serving the music, and the people around them.  To me, that's what this life's all about.
I was also humbled to have two of my students named as the Downbeat Magazine High School Vocalists of the Year in 2010 and again in 2012!  Additionally, vocal jazz ensembles under my direction were three time finalists at the Monterey Jazz Festival Next Generation Competition, were invited to perform at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2011, and were three time Downbeat Award Winners, being named the Outstanding High Vocal Jazz Ensemble in 2012.
As a performer, I've played festivals and clubs throughout the U.S. and toured Central Europe and South Africa.  I've shared Festival billing with renowned jazz artists like Kenny Werner, the Yellow Jackets, Mose Allison, Bobby Hutcherson, Henry Butler, Gene Harris, Joe LaBarbera and many others.

GC: What should we expect at the concert this Monday?

JB-You tell me!?  It's your gig, George!  Just kidding.  I've always taken The approach of trying to honor this music in whatever artistic choices I make.  I really enjoy taking beautiful songs, many if which that have been around for a very long time, and introducing them into a new musical context.  Hopefully listeners Monday night will be treated to a unique musical perspective, and come away having been reintroduced to some of jazz musics best repertoire in ways they hadn't thought possible.  Who knows maybe I'll even give people a new 'favorite version' of a song they'd heard 100 times before?!.  That'd be very cool!